From Russia: Memories in the City of Light

Chagall recreated Vitebsk many times over during his first year in Paris in 1911. His imaginative reworking of his hometown blended reality and fantasy and proved an elaborate means by which to retain his links with home through a painterly cast of Jewish peasant characters and iconography dominated by a sense of harmony between man and beast. Iconic images such as I and the Village, 1911, evoke Chagall's joyous memories of his native Hasidic Jewish community in Vitebsk. The artist ingeniously combines Hasidism's celebration of the connection between nature and human life with the new pictorial language of French Modernism.

I and the Village Marc Chagall, I and the Village, 1911
Oil on canvas, 192.1 x 151.4 cm
The Museum of Modern Art, New York,
Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund, 1945

Fragmented Images: Chagall and Cubism

Despite Chagall's proclamations about the autodidactic nature of his art and his independence from all movements, the fragmented imagery and multiple viewpoints of Cubism soon began to appear in his reverie-like images. By engaging with the most advanced art of the time while still remaining true to the strong influences of his indigenous cultural and religious identity, Chagall revealed his personal interpretation of Cubism and his ability to subvert its forms for his own expressive needs. This large impressive Half Past Three (The Poet), 1911 has distinctly Cubist tendencies that are undercut by a strikingly non-naturalistic colour scheme and layers of literary references, including a love poem fragment.

Half-Past Three Marc Chagall, Half-Past Three (The Poet), 1911
Oil on canvas, 195.9 x 144.8 cm
Philadelphia Museum of Art,
The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection, 1950

The Onset of Colour: Chagall and Orphism

During his three years in Paris, Chagall's only sustained friendship with another artist was with the Frenchman Robert Delaunay. During 1912 and 1913 Chagall produced a number of paintings using vividly opposing colours that are visually similar to Delaunay's notion of 'pure painting' – a movement towards abstraction and offshoot of Cubism that Apollinaire christened 'Orphism' in October 1912. Chagall's interest in Delaunay stemmed from his embrace of certain Cubist principles; the French artist's use of transparent, bright and complementary colours presented an intriguing shift away from the dull earth tones of most Cubist palettes. There was also a transfer of imagery between the two painters – Parisian icons including the Eiffel Tower prevalent in Delaunay's architecturally inspired work began to appear in paintings by Chagall, as in Paris through the Window, 1913.
Homage to Apollinaire was the star piece in Chagall's one-man show in Herwarth Walden's Berlin gallery Der Sturm in the spring of 1914. This crammed exhibition, which included nearly all of Chagall's major Paris pieces, was to establish the artist's unequivocal standing as a foremost figure of early Modernism.

Homage to Apollinaire Marc Chagall, Homage to Apollinaire, 1911/12
Oil on canvas, 200.4 x 189.5 cm
Collection Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven

Return to Russia 1914: War and Love

Following his visit to Berlin in 1914, Chagall travelled home to Russia, intending to stay for a couple of months, however, the outbreak of War prevented his return to Paris. The most joyful event of the artist's return to Russia was his marriage to his fiancée Bella Rosenfeld in July 1915. Their marriage provoked a surge of creativity in Chagall and he embarked upon a major series of double portraits of himself and Bella, such as Lovers in Blue, 1914, that celebrate their reunited love and passion for one another. The influence of Cubism that Chagall so inventively developed in Paris returned in a subsequent series of Vitebsk town landscapes, and paintings such as La Promenade, 1917/18, in which a cubist structure is reiterated in the configuration of the houses and sky, and imbues the painting with a sense of harmonious unity yet also ceaseless, energetic movement.

The Promenade Marc Chagall, The Promenade, 1917/18
Oil on canvas, 175.2 x 168.4 cm
The State Russian Museum, St Petersburg

The Non-objective World: Chagall versus Suprematism

Chagall's attachment to the 'real' world did not permit him to espouse the abstraction advocated by his fellow avant-garde teacher, Malevich, at the Vitebsk School of Art. Despite this his works of the later teens do contain references – albeit of a perhaps mocking nature – to geometric abstraction. These can be glimpsed in Chagall's quasi comical Profile at the Window, 1918, where the segmented structures and dynamic diagonal lines are employed in the service of portraiture traditions. Chagall's vision of a school that would encourage every tendency eventually ran afoul of Malevich's exclusive faith in abstraction. In time Malevich and his followers seized the place in the name of Suprematism and its militant modernism.

Profile at the Window Marc Chagall, Profile at the Window, 1918
Graphite, gouache and ink on paper, 22 x 16.8 cm
Centre Pompidou, Paris – Musée national d'art moderne / Centre de création industrielle, dation en 1988

Chagall's Murals for the Yiddish Chamber Theatre in Moscow

Stage design was to be a recurrent activity throughout his career and during his years in Russia Chagall designed both costumes and sets on a regular basis. Among these is the bright yellow Homage to Gogol, 1917, which was part of a set design and several stage curtains that Chagall proposed for a festival celebrating the work of dramatist Nikolai Gogol. In this sketch, the figure reflects the darkly humorous worldview of Gogol, and is partly influenced by the artist's earlier works on paper such as The Traveller, 1914, that depicts a similarly contorted body with fantastically over-elongated limbs.
Increasingly disillusioned by Soviet rule after moving to Moscow in 1920, Chagall left Russia in 1922. But before he did, he produced one of the high points of his career: the murals for the interior of the State Jewish Chamber Theatre in Moscow, which came to be nicknamed 'Chagall's Box'. With their dreamy, pale colours these works act as a manifesto of Chagall's deliberately hybrid aesthetic, in which broad bands of colour derived plainly from Suprematism are the backdrop – but only the backdrop – for resolutely non abstract protagonists, acrobats and livestock. The monumental paintings packed with activity present Chagall's panoramic vision of the Yiddish theatre that is the theatre of life.

Introduction to the Jewish Theatre
Marc Chagall, Introduction to the Jewish Theatre, 1920
Tempera, gouache and opaque white on canvas, 284 x 787 cm
The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Poetic and Prophetic Visions: A Glimpse at Chagall's Later Works

In the 1950s Picasso observed 'When Matisse dies Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what colour really is.' The exhibition will also present an important final section that brings together diverse works from later periods of his career; these will reveal the full radiant colouration that would come to characterise Chagall's paintings and show how his early poetic and prophetic themes, which were so closely entwined with early Modernist art, were to re-emerge throughout his long artistic practice.

Red Rooftops Marc Chagall, Red Rooftops, 1953
Oil on paper, mounted on linen canvas, 229 x 210 cm
Centre Pompidou, Paris – Musée national d'art moderne / Centre de création industrielle, dation en 1988